Nonprofit Film School Primer: Or, The Idealware School of Video for Nonprofits Who Don’t Video Good (Part 2)

Part Two: Improving Audio and Content

You don’t need to have a film school degree to make low-budget videos that don’t look low-budget. If you follow the basic principles of video production, and know how and when to use certain equipment, you can avoid such common mistakes as shaky video, poor lighting, inaudible audio, and boring scenes that make videos look amateurish and cut through the crowd of bad cat videos.

In the first post, we looked at how to compose and light your videos.  This time we look at how to improve the audio—and, more importantly, the content.

Improving audio quality

It can be easy to forget about audio when thinking about video, but improving the sound quality will also improve the overall quality of your video. (Audio is, after all, the “A” in A/V). There are a few ways to do this.


First, and most important, is the microphone you use to record. You’re probably currently using the one built into your camera, which is fine for certain situations. If you’re shooting close to your subject in a quiet, indoor setting, it will work OK. But when you’re shooting in a different location or at a greater distance from your subject, the limitations of a built-in microphone become apparent. For example, built-in mics—especially in smaller and cheaper cameras—only work acceptably if the camera and the person talking are no further apart than about four feet. Think of it in terms of conversation; if you’re close enough to have a conversation at normal volume, you’re probably close enough to record audio. If you have to shout across the room, it’s time for an external microphone.

Most consumer cameras have an 1/8-inch “audio in” jack the same size as most headphone jacks, while more expensive cameras may have an XLR jack that looks like a large circle with room for three prongs. If you’re not sure what type of microphone to buy, ask for help at the store. If your camera doesn’t have an audio in, you’ll need a separate way to record sound. Digital audio recorders are readily available, and very affordable. Or, if you’re shooting inside the office or have a laptop handy, you could record the audio on your computer.

There are many different types of microphones, and each type records sound in different ways. For the most part, you don’t need to concern yourself with this. Decide whether you want a handheld mic or one that clips to your shirt, and find one you can afford. Expect to spend between $50 and $100.

Background Noise

In a perfect setting, you’d be able to eliminate all outside noise—sneezes, coughs, passing traffic, creaky floorboards, and downstairs neighbors. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world, and nonprofits don’t typically have access to a soundstage. People sneezing and coughing will ruin your shot (unless your video is about cold and flu season or hygiene); there’s not a lot you can do about that, but there are a few ways to control background noise. The simplest method, in theory, is to just avoid the noise. If your office is near a busy street where cars frequently honk their horns, try shooting your video as far away from the street side as possible. At the very least, avoid shooting near the windows. If you can’t find a quiet spot in your office, stay late one night or come in on a Saturday to shoot the video. But all of this is easier said than done.

External microphones can also help reduce background noise, because microphones “hear” best the sounds that are loudest or closest—if you are using the mic in the camera on the other side of the room, it’s more likely to pick up distracting noises than one positioned closer to your subject. It’s also important to consider the setting. Different locations bring different problems. If you’re shooting outside, for example, you’ll have to deal with traffic and ambient noise as well as the wind. There’s a reason that TV news reporters have microphones that look like giant lollipops—they’re covered with foam “wind screens” that prevent the wind from blowing directly into the mic.

It’s worth noting that the right background noise can actually help reinforce the story your video is trying to tell. Just like watching a televised basketball game wouldn’t be the same without the roar of the crowd, a video showing an office at work needs some office sounds in the background, or it feels weird and fake. The trick is to make sure the background noise doesn’t distract from or overpower what you’re trying to say.


As a side note, consider the music that will play over the intro and outro of your video, or any background soundtracks. Make sure you have permission to use the songs you choose. Copyright-infringement is against the law, and, if your video is going on the internet—for example, on YouTube—it can and will be taken down. Two solutions to this problem are to either create your own music, or to find and use copyright-free songs.

You also want to make sure the music you select is appropriate for the story your video is trying to tell. If you’re telling a serious story, don’t use upbeat or silly music, and vice versa. Music has a very powerful emotional effect on an audience—make sure the emotion you’re getting is the one you want. (See my blog post on choosing music

Improving content quality

No matter how well-made your video is, it’s worthless if your audience doesn’t want to watch it. Here are a few things you should consider to make sure your story is compelling enough to compete with stupid pet videos.

How long should my video be?

When I took my first video class in college, I asked this same question to my instructor. His answer? “As long as it has to be and not a second more” (emphasis added). Your video isn’t a freshman English paper—you’re not trying to stretch it out to make it to 1,500 words. Trim out everything that doesn’t need to be in there, and you’ll have a tight, well-paced video that people will keep watching.

Keep things interesting

It’s easy to fall into the trap of showing a single person talking for five minutes about your organization’s story. While your message may be compelling to viewers, your video isn’t. Try changing things up instead of showing the same scene. If your story is about how your school made use of a grant, cut to a clip of a teacher in the classroom, or of students using the computers you bought with that grant. Don’t tell me; show me.This is a video, not a book; show the things you accomplished instead of describing them. Organizations like the ASPCA ( have been using this principle to great effect for years, and now, you can too.

Better editing

Editing can be your salvation when it comes to creating a great video, but it can also be your downfall. Take the time to get to know the editing software you’ll be using. You can find how-to guides and videos online, but you should also get some hands-on experience playing around to see what it is capable of.

Once you’ve done that, though, you need to stop playing around. Yes, that “star wipe” special effect looks really cool when you’re first trying things out, but once it’s in your video, it looks cheesy. The special effects included with your software are never, ever going to look as good as the ones you see in the movies; all they do is draw attention to themselves—and away from your story. Let your content speak for itself. Only edit what has to be edited. Cut out any unnecessary footage, add a title or credits, and leave it at that.

Here’s a list of the features and transitions that you can safely use without fear of making your video look more amateurish instead of less.

  • Fade. Use this sparingly when you have to transition between two scenes.
  • Fade-to-black. Use this once at the very end of your video.
  • Titles. Once at the beginning, once at the end, and once per person to introduce them.

Remember, you don’t want to show off all the neat things your software can do. Instead, you want to use a light, subtle touch, and keep things simple so that your story will shine through and speak for itself.


As with any skill, creating and editing video takes time and experience. The more you practice this skill, the easier it will get—and the better you’ll be. Take the time to learn your equipment and software, if you can. Find opportunities to practice, either for your organization or in your spare time. If you find that you’ve awakened your inner Spielberg or John Ford, you may have found yourself a new hobby. You’re not alone, either. There’s a wealth of resources and communities online that can teach you new tips and tricks or answer your questions.

Further Reading

Idealware A Few Good Tools for Video Editing The Basics of Video Editing: The Complete Guide

Idealware How to Make a Guerilla Video

TechSoup Blog Make Your Videos Better

Socialbrite’s Free Music Directory

Idealware blog post It’s Not Just What You Say, But How You Say It

Kyle Andrei
Research Analyst
As Senior Researcher, Kyle is responsible for researching software through demos, interviews, and surveys, and using that information to create Idealware’s reports and articles. In addition, Kyle also produces Idealware’s Ask Idealware videos, drawing on his broadcasting experience. Kyle is a graduate of Indiana State University, where he split his time between managing the student radio station, researching video game communication and working on local elections.